trip diary - October - Beijing, Chengdu & Wolong
close Panda encounter
trip diary October 28 to November 13, 2005.
This is a record of my first visit to the Wolong Panda Preserve. Over
the next three years until the May, 2008 earthquake, I was fortunate to
bring more than twenty groups to Wolong. I was in the Wolong Panda
Preserve so often the staff gave me a Chinese nickname, because they
cannot easily pronounce my real name. 2006, 2007 and early 2008 I was
at the Wolong Preserve with almost unfettered access for 60 to 90 days
each year. I was allowed to roam freely behind the scenes, only barred
from entering the interior of the nursery. This was for me an idyllic
and carefree time.
Yes I still lead panda volunteering trips each year. Send me an email if you are interested in this experience.
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October 28, 2005: I
checked into the Hademan Hotel a few days ago. That way I had time to
ensure all plans were still on track. The ambience here is friendly and
very Chinese…just what I want in a hotel when I’m staying in China. I
shun the large glitzy hotels that could be located anywhere in the
world, but just happen to be in China. This hotel has over 200 rooms,
but it only took the staff a day to learn my name and room number. (The
Hademan Hotel was taken down in 2008/2009 as the renovation craze swept
through Beijing during preparations for the 2008 Olympics.)
The rest of our small group arrived today. Carol and
Trina came in around 2:30 and dawn’s plane which was scheduled
to arrive at 9:00 P.M. touched down around 10:00 or 11:00. We had
dinner tonight at one of the top Peking Duck restaurants in Beijing.
It’s been operating for several hundred years. The food was
excellent and our group began to learn to use chopsticks. Thankfully
I learned to use chopsticks while still in elementary school, so
they are a normal part of Chinese dining for me.
The weather was wet and overcast with light showers
on and off for the last three days, but then today things cleared
up and the weather was just about perfect.
Giant Pandas and Me:
Ten Years of Discovery
by Keith E. Jones
29: This morning we eat from the hotel breakfast buffet that is
located each morning inside the hotel tea house. I spent a leisurely
hour in the Tea Room one lazy afternoon and enjoyed the full Chinese
Tea Ceremony. I recommend it.
We start the day by taking a taxi in search of an open
air relics and antique market. This has been moved inside because of the coming Olympics. Beijing
is undergoing massive construction in preparation for the 2008 Summer
Olympic Games. I guarantee you that China will not be embarrassed
by being late in their preparations or by having any segment of the
games appear to be anything but first class.
We also search for the old bird and flower mart.
Because of the avian flu epidemic the birds are gone and the flower mart is
like a swap meet for nursery products. We finally locate the antique
market which has gone inside and gone upscale. It is all permanent store
fronts now. There is another weekend antique market that I’ll
visit in May, but we run out of time and must head over to Tiananmen
We return to the hotel and then ride the subway to the
Tiananmen Square station. We visit the Forbidden City this afternoon.
It is directly across the street from Tiananmen Square. Our hotel
is at a subway station entrance so this means of transport is very
fast. Traffic in Beijing can be snarled at any time. What takes us
15 minutes total on the subway might have taken an hour
on the road.
Museums and restorations of old buildings are not my
particular interest, so the afternoon while interesting, is a bit
slow for me. I cannot help but be amazed at the crowds. Following
our leisurely stroll through the City we go back to the hotel to
prepare for our evening at the Chinese Acrobat Show.
Helen has reserved us very good seats. We are in the
4th row and stage center. The loads of tour buses have
emptied their hordes of passengers into the many rows of seating behind
us. This is an excellent show with feats of strength, flexibility
and balance that are amazing, even in the world we live in today
|There have been numerous changes
in the day to day itinerary of our tour since this first development
tour in 2005. While the trip remains substantially the same,
please read our latest trip details for up to date information.
here to email us
we leave a bit earlier in the morning as we head to a section of the
Great Wall known as Mutianyu. It is quite a distance from Beijing
Central which is why the majority of the tour operators don’t bring
their groups here. It still has plenty of tourists, but nothing like
Badaling Simitai or other wall sections closer to Beijing. This section
of the wall is the most picturesque of all the areas that can be
reached from Beijing in one day. Because of our early morning
start time, we are able to walk on short sections of the wall with no
other people in view. This is something almost nobody gets the
opportunity to do - have a quiet moment alone on the Wall.
We take the cable car from the parking area up to the
actual wall. I choose to head directly west along the wall, while
the other group members choose to first turn to the north and east.
I leave our Chinese translator and local guide, Helen, with them
while I walk west. I wanted to spend some time studying a beacon tower and
A couple hours later I arrive at the area of the wall
where a sled ride has been installed. This is an amusement type ride
and quite fun to take down for an extra $6 or & $7 USD. Trina
and Dawn catch up and then along comes Helen, but Carol has disappeared
from the wall! We didn’t think that was possible, but then Helen
suggests that Carol possibly took the hiking trail down to the parking
lot. That trail access is quarter mile or so back along the wall.
Since Helen and I both have Chinese cell phones that
are working here we split up. She goes down to search along the trail.
Dawn and Trina ride the sleds down and will search the shopping and
parking lot areas. I sit on the wall and enjoy the relative solitude
tucked away in a quiet corner of one of the small branches that occasionally
lead off from the main wall.
Helen finally calls to report Carol is now with the group
and had indeed hiked down. I jump on a sled and take a fun ride down
the hill bobsled style, but without the ice.
We head back to Beijing and stop at a local roadside
inn for a late lunch. The food is excellent and the people very friendly.
Although miles from any city everything is clean and very sanitary
We all agree that walking on the Great Wall is very cool
and something everyone should do when visiting China.
31: We leave Beijing on an early flight to Chengdu. I am sorry
to say goodbye to the hotel staff. I’m glad we are staying here
the night we leave China. The three cleanest and most modern airports
I have ever been in are now all Chinese. Hong Kong is #1, Beijing
#2 and Chengdu #3 in size and design ambience. They are all SPOTLESS.
They make most American airports seem cheap and second class.
We arrive in Chengdu at 1:00 PM. Had a good lunch on
the plane. It is interesting that wine, both red and white, are offered
as a free drink choice on our Air China flight. It is even more interesting
to me that my 6’-0" frame fits far more easily in these
economy seats than it does in any economy class USA airline I have
flown on. China businesses seems to have just a little more concern
for how the individual is treated than what we Capitalists are used
Our Wolong local panda guide and Chinese translator is
waiting at the airport with a big smile on her face. We load into
the van and head north toward the mountains. If we were to drive far
enough we would end up in Tibet, but our trip is quite a bit shorter.
The trip to the Panda Inn takes us about 4 ½ hours. Traffic
is heavy at some points due to massive hydro-electric projects being
built along the river valley that we drive up. Without these projects
the drive is only about 3 hours. We stop at a fruit and vegetable
market and stock up on bananas and Mandarin oranges (they are the
At the Hotel we check in and meet for dinner. It doesn’t
take the group long to realize that the accommodations here are a
step down from the Hademan Hotel in Beijing. The Panda Inn is attached
to the Wolong Panda Preserve and is the only logical place to stay.
The 4 star (much nicer) Wolong Hotel is up the road 5 miles. Staying
there would isolate us from the panda activity we have all come to
experience. It is nice to be able to walk from the Panda preserve
to our hotel rooms and then back to the preserve as we desire. As
has been the case everywhere in China, the Hotel staff are friendly
and cordial. The restaurant staff is more friendly. I become friendly
with some of them during our stay here
1: In the morning we drive up the valley to do a half day hike
in a steep valley that branches off from the large Wolong Valley.
However when we get there the trail has suffered a landslide and I
call off the hike up the canyon as being too dangerous. Instead I
decide we will walk along the main road, visiting some of the villages
along the way. This will give us the opportunity to see the local
peoples homes and businesses up close. We also have the chance to
talk with the locals as we walk along. The group members all agree
that the roadside hike was more interesting than the valley would
A brief 1 hour stop at the Wolong Panda Museum gets us
primed to see some real live Pandas! So we head back to the hotel
for lunch and then walk to the panda preserve to register for our
volunteer work and to see some live pandas.
The first thing I see as we take a quick walk around
the facility is staff members in the nursery attempting to take a
group photo with all 16 baby pandas in the photo. These babies are
the ones that were just born in late July and early August. They have
never got all these babies together before, so we have a great string
of luck going. Lining up 16 squirming baby panda cubs is a challenge
that proves too much. They barely get them together in a semi-ragged
line before the head keeper calls the project off and animal handlers
begin carrying cubs back to their proper pens. What a treat to start
our panda encounter. Seeing something that nobody else in the world
has ever seen. Sixteen baby panda cubs all together in the same room!
I love it.
We then walk over to the "panda club" where
Cindy Lo ( who speaks excellent English) hands out our work clothing
and has us sign the work agreements. Of course a size large in Chinese
isn’t designed to fit a guy 6 foot tall and 200 pounds, so my
coverall is generally rolled down around my waist. I hope they will
have some Extra large or XX large next time.
Dinner is full of chatter about pandas and questions
about what our work day will be like tomorrow. We are all anxiously
filled with anticipation.
2: Breakfast is at 8:00 in the dining room as always.
Our work day begins at 8:30 sharp, don’t be late because
the pandas are hungry. We each meet our teacher for the duration.
My keeper is named
Zhang (pronounced sung). She has key responsibility for two panda
males who are in training. Some keepers handle three to five
level of care and attention needed for each animal. There are slightly
more than 60 pandas here at the moment. This number can and
as animals are born, die or are relocated to other panda preserves
Work for all of us this morning consists of cleaning
up the old bamboo trimmings and cleaning the enclosures. Along with
this there is feeding to be done. Some pandas get more of the special
panda cake than others. Lately we are told that the bamboo supply
hasn’t been the young tender shoots that the pandas really love,
so many of them are not eating as much as they should. The panda cake
is nutritious and tasty, but it affects their digestive system and
makes the clean up operation more difficult.
Zhang and I hand feed our primary adult male, Drong
Drong. This is done as part of the training process. Zhang breaks
into bite sized pieces and the feeds these to DD one by one. First
he must come over and sit on his scale to receive food. He does
and we weigh him in at 102 kilos. I get to feed him the small bite
sized pieces. I notice that he sticks his tongue out as I hand him
the pieces. I withhold the food slightly and he is forced to reach
forward just a bit. As he does so he sticks his tongue out further
and licks the bottom of my hand. We get a routine going right away,
he licks my hand; I shove a piece of cake into his open mouth.
I later learn I’m the only one to be tongued by
one of their pandas. Drong Drong was very vocal. Everything he did
was accompanied by moans and groans. 11:30 and lunch break time comes
around too quick for me. Zhang advises me to be back at 2:00. She
speak much English, but my few words of Chinese and the pocket electronic
translator allow us to communicate okay. She tells me that we won’t
do any clean up in the afternoon, just feeding. And also a special
training session has been scheduled for D-D and the vets of the center.
Lunch is again multiple large dishes of food. We keep
saying it is too much food, but surprisingly little food is left at
the end of any of our meals. With all the food we eat on this trip,
when I got back on the scale at home I discover I’ve lost 15
pounds during the 25 days I’ve been in China.
After the lunch break I return to work with Zhang. We
feed D-D and the other panda. Then we have some time off. 30 minutes
of sitting are about all I have patience for and I take to roaming
the compound. I find six baby panda laid out on the concrete in
of a wall, catching some sun. They are all asleep except for one
who keeps trying to walk away. The keeper must continually run over
shoo him back into the sun with the others.
Finally Zhang calls me over to observe the training
session with Drong Drong. DD must crawl into a steel barred cage
and sort of stretch out. Then upon command he inserts one arm into
an area that projects from the front of the cage and that holds
his arm. This allows the veterinarians to inject his arm, draw blood
samples or do other work to his arms or legs. When he has completed
this task successfully for several minutes the second part of the
This training is to allow the vets to collect sperm,
which is used when a female must be artificially inseminated. DD
lay on his back for this operation. Then each of his four paws must
grasp a specific bar on the cage. He must lay in this position,
his paws continuing to grip the bars while the vets go about manipulating
him in order to collect the samples. As he is still being trained
his rear paws occasionally come off the bars and take swipes at the
veterinarians who are working on him. There is real danger involved
in this part of the vets work. Everyone proceeds cautiously and with
precise movements. Overall DD performs his tasks well and is continually
rewarded by Zhang with panda cake and clicks from an animal training
I decide to skip the next work day so I can photograph
the others at work. We are not allowed to have cameras with us while
working. The staff fears that too much attention will be paid to the
photographing, which could put a volunteer into a dangerous situation.
We must be careful to stay back from the bars, out of paw swiping
Dinner tonight is very good. We have been having
difficulty with hot water in our showers, so Jai, our local guide, goes
off to see about getting us hot water. For the rest of our stay we have
mostly luke warm water, sometimes only cold water and for me at least
most afternoons with hot water. The last 4 days I have no hot water
problems. (NOTE: in 2007 the Panda Inn was remodeled and is much
nicer with hot water all the time, new clean rooms and heaters that
work well) (NOTE: May 12, 2008 the terrible earthquake struck and
destroyed the panda preserve and the newly renovated Panda Inn)
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3: Did I mention it was raining the day we arrived at Wolong,
but rain had stopped before our arrival. During our stay the staff kept
expecting more rain, but we had 9 rainless days. Several days the
weather was almost hot at around 1:00 or 2:00 PM. But overall the
weather was cold, down in the high 30s or low 40s in the morning and
at night. Daytime highs might have topped out at 65 or 70, but generally
were in the high 50s or low 60s. Long underwear was nice in the morning,
but usually too much for the afternoons.
Today the group begins their work at 8:30, while I wander
around the nearly empty complex taking photos and enjoying my quiet
time. The bus loads of tourists from the valley don’t usually
arrive before 10:00 AM, so the early morning is a very nice time here.
It is also the time when the pandas are most active. They know that
they will see their trainers and that they will get fresh food.
4: Third day of volunteer work. Carol chooses to take photos instead
of working. I continue to take photos. Yesterday and today I also
went off in search of day hikes we could do. Because of the threatening
weather conditions I cancelled our four day trek to Wuyipeng to search
for the wild pandas. It was just too dangerous at that higher elevation,
with the weather conditions so iffy at the moment.
Gray whales, Tigers, Elephants,
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copyright 2014, Keith Jones
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